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In every war but one

Carl Hertel

Carl Hertel

My war, as they say, was the Korean Conflict. After that war The New Yorker magazine published an article by Eugene Kinkead (later a book) titled “In Every War But One.” The article dealt with what came to be called the “brainwashing” of American POWs and the shocking fact that some of our soldiers became collaborators and participated in enemy propaganda efforts. This was behavior American troops had never before displayed and was a matter of great concern to the armed forces. One should also note that almost four thousand American POWs died as a result of their imprisonment in Korea and that they were subjected to all manner of cruel and inhumane treatment in addition to the much publicized brainwashing. So, it was a sad and bewildering aspect of a brutal war that some call "the forgotten war.” As we know all too well today in the face of North Korea’s nuclear threats, it is also a war that isn't over.

I served in the Third Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Georgia. Our commander was General Hayden L. (Bull) Boatner. As a member of the Division Headquarters Company, I was an enlisted man involved in the reassignment of returning combat troops, some of whom had served under General Boatner in Korea.

One of the veterans’ favorite stories about the General was his “quelling” of the Koje-do prisoner-of-war riots in 1952. At one point, the Chinese and North Korean rioters had captured General Dodd, the POW camp commandant who naively thought he could negotiate with them. Boatner was brought in to shape things up. Some of the returning veterans told me that "Bull Boatner" accomplished his mission by opening fire on the camp with machine guns. The official record states that he entered the compound with tanks and troops and “re-organized” the prisoners to stop the riots. He was quoted as saying, “Prisoners do not negotiate.” Boatner was fluent in Chinese and knew his enemy well.

Military historians tend to agree that the real cause of the riots was Chinese and North Korean infiltrators who came into Koje plotting to stop the orderly repatriation of prisoners and also attempting to confound plans by the United Nations to bring the Korean conflict to a close. That is, to make a complicated situation too simple, the riots were another way of carrying on the war inside a POW camp. Boatner realized that killing or removing the provocateurs was the only way to restore order. Many of us recall the TV show Hogan’s Heroes as a model for how prisoners of war were supposed to behave. Neither the U.S. POW’s in Korea nor Boatner and his charges at Koje quite fit that pattern. So perhaps Kinkead had it right about Korea as far as untypical prisoner-of-war conduct was concerned.

In 1990, I was in northwest China and ran across a man living in a tar-paper shack near Langzhou. He had been a member of the Chinese People’s Army in the Korean Conflict and remembered the Koje riots and General Boatner. After giving me tea he began a long digression about Korea and the decline of communism in China since that war. He finished by standing up and declaring that the United States had finally triumphed, the Korean War was over and, he said, “The United States is great and China has lost!”

At the time, I was only able to leave him with a pack of Marlboros and a photo of my studio in Placitas showing me, my dog, and my granddaughter, but we parted having tried to cross an enormous cultural gap with, I suppose, limited success. Of course, my disillusioned Chinese communist friend was quite wrong about the Korean War being over. It had become a part of the devilish process some call a "perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

Although the United Nations-sanctioned war against North Korea’s aggression was a different situation than the preemptive strike against Iraq, musing about “my war” calls up a surprising number of issues relevant to the current military involvement of our country in the Middle East. For example, how quickly most of us empathize with POW’s and feel their plight and pain. How brutal war with its death and destruction is for combatants and for unarmed civilians, especially children. How strongly we feel about our young men and women put in harm’s way in our name. How cultural differences and the sense of the enemy as “other” makes us feel insecure and a bit crazy. How hard it is to know what winning really means and how hard it is to win the peace.

We all have our own views of war and peace, but given the facts of the war in Iraq, we are once again faced with feelings, issues, and choices that Korea raised for us fifty years ago—and that we failed to resolve at that time. What could make this war different would be getting it right this time. This could give new meaning to the phrase “in every war but one,” and perhaps also shed new light on the dangers and pitfalls of using preemptive force to make “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”




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